Tommy Krasker, the record producer who helped revive interest in the works of George and Ira Gershwin through restored studio recordings of Pardon My English, Girl Crazy, Lady Be Good, Strike Up the Band and Oh, Kay!, has launched his own label — ps classics — and theatre music is a centerpiece in the programming.
The first disc on Krasker's ps classics was the fall 2000 release, "Philip Chaffin: Where Do I Go From You?," which draws on film-musical tunes from some of the great composers and lyricists of Broadway and Hollywood. Next up, May 1, is "Windflowers: The Songs of Jerome Moross," expanded and adapted from a cabaret show seen at Joe's Pub in Manhattan in February-March 2000.
"I started ps classics because there were projects I wanted to be working on and I thought if I don't do them they won't get done," Krasker, 41, told Playbill On-Line. Although experienced as a Nonesuch Records producer on discs by Audra McDonald, Dawn Upshaw and Mandy Patinkin, Krasker admitted he was fairly ignorant about how to market any independent work he might produce. Friends urged him to use the internet to promote and sell his discs. The ps classics website is at www.psclassics.com. Discs can be bought on the site, but are also available "wide" in stores and other websites, such as Amazon.com.
Krasker, who is still a producer at Nonesuch, the label that distributed the Gershwin discs, enlisted his colleague Eric Stern to conduct an orchestra of 38 for the ps classics debut. Chaffin is Krasker's partner as well as a creative colleague and, initially, creating the new label was a way for the pair to work together. Krasker, however, saw room for other projects, as long as they didn't conflict with his role as a producer at Nonesuch.
"It was born out of a desire to work together," Krasker said, "but it reminded me there were other projects. The surprise was that I had all kinds of ideas." The ps classics mission is simple: Put out a combination of discs that showcase vintage shows, neglected composers and singers who deserve to be heard.
Krasker had been wanting to do some kind of Jerome Moross album for about 10 years, and was in touch with Moross' daughter, Susanna Moross Tarjan. He was musical consultant of the 2000 Joe's Pub cabaret show devoted to Moross, the composer of Broadway's The Golden Apple, and moved it to the recording studio with the cast and a band of seven (with Stern conducting from the piano).
The Roxbury-Nonesuch Gershwin series of recordings, with original orchestrations and contemporary theatre performers, ended in 1994. Such studio recordings of classic shows are not money makers and are extremely costly, but they are cherished by fans who want to understand musical theatre craft and history.
"When I first got into this, when I was an archivist for the Cole Porter Trust and the Gershwin Trust, there were all these shows I wanted to see recorded," Krasker said. "And I thought, there's no record company that will take a chance on these..."
He said ps classics can't take any major financial risks on large cast shows at the moment, but will explore "smaller more intimate musicals that are worth rediscovering." With the Chaffin disc, Krasker said, "We were free of the constraints of a record company. The only pocket books to consider were my own. I won't be doing something with 40-50 people in the orchestra and chorus of 70 but those aren't the only shows that interest me."
How did Chaffin's "Where Do I Go From You?" come about?
"Philip and I had spoken for years about wanting to do a recording," Krasker explained. "When we finally decided to go forward I asked him what he wanted to do, and Philip said, 'I'd just like to be the fella who sings with the band.'"
From that idea, Chaffin, Krasker and Stern decided to address the new album as a Big Band homage, offering the kind of sound you would have heard in nightclubs and on radio programs in the heyday of the bands, in the 1930s and 1940s.
The disc includes some original arrangements and orchestrations — some of the charts were lifted right from the soundtracks — and some arrangements "in the style of" the era. "We wanted to capture the era of the big bands and the dance bands — before everything got overblown in the style associated with the '50s and '60s. We wanted to embrace all those different styles. It does evoke the era, borrows elements from the era and presents Philip's style in a very good light."
Prior to the 1999 recording session, Chaffin had tried out some of the songs with pops orchestras in the mid-1990s and with piano and voice in New York cabarets. The disc was released in fall 2000.
"Where Do I Go From You?" includes songs by Cole Porter, Arthur Schwartz and Dorothy Fields, Burton Lane and Frank Loesser, Jerome Kern, Harold Arlen and Yip Harburg, Irving Berlin, the Gershwins and more.
Chaffin was born in Baton Rouge, LA, and raised in Baton Rouge and Mississippi, and moved to Los Angeles after college. He was cast in the West Coast premiere of George and Ira Gershwin's Strike Up the Band, in which he introduced the wartime ballad "Homeward Bound." Soon after, he toured the world as a vocalist with Ray Conniff and his Orchestra. He returned to L.A. in 1993 and sang on a series of recordings, including the Nonesuch restorations of Pardon My English and Oh, Kay!, and played the lead, Kenneth, in the Library of Congress archival recording of the Gershwins' little-known 1925 musical Tell Me More. Since moving to New York in 1997, he's performed in concerts, including the Encores! production of Sweet Adeline at City Center.
Conductor Stern has been music directing and arranging in New York for more than 20 years. He has performed and recorded with The Chicago Symphony, the Cleveland Orchestra, The London Symphony Orchestra, the Boston Pops, The London Sinfonietta, and the BBC Orchestra of Wales. His recordings have won him Grammys and Gramophone Awards. Among his conducting gigs on disc: Dawn Upshaw's "I Wish It So" and her Rodgers and Hart and Vernon Duke recordings; "Experiment," "Oscar & Steve" and "Mamaloshen" with Mandy Patinkin; and "Way Back to Paradise" and "How Glory Goes" with Audra McDonald. For Nonesuch Records, he recorded reconstructions of the Gershwins' Lady, Be Good!, Pardon My English, and Oh, Kay!, and conducted a studio compilation, "Leonard Bernstein's New York."
Songs on the Chaffin disc include "Where Do I Go From You?" by Arthur Schwartz & Dorothy Fields, "At Last" by Harry Warren & Mack Gordon, "No Strings" by Irving Berlin, "Love of My Life" by Artie Shaw & Johnny Mercer, "Can't Teach My Old Heart New Tricks" by Richard Whiting & Johnny Mercer, "I Hear Music" by Burton Lane & Frank Loesser, "Some Like It Hot" by Gene Krupa, Remo Biondi & Frank Loesser, "The Way You Look Tonight" by Jerome Kern & Dorothy Fields, "Love Is Here to Stay" by George & Ira Gershwin, "I Wake Up in the Morning Feeling Fine" by Frank Loesser, "Too Marvelous for Words" by Richard Whiting & Johnny Mercer, "There's a Lull in My Life" by Harry Revel & Mack Gordon, "Two Blind Loves" by Harold Arlen & E.Y. Harburg, "Serenade in Blue" by Harry Warren & Mack Gordon, "I Wish I Didn't Love You So" by Frank Loesser, "Easy to Love" by Cole Porter.
— By Kenneth Jones